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EXCL Civil service unions blast 'insulting' attack on Whitehall from Tory manifesto chief

4 min read

Number 10's plans for a "seismic" overhaul of the civil service have been branded "insulting" by trade unions representing Whitehall staff.

The FDA, which represents senior officials, and PCS, which has tens of thousands of members in the civil service rank-and-file, hit out after the co-author of the Conservatives' manifesto said civil servants were "woefully unprepared" for changes to their working culture being planned by Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's most senior aide.

Rachel Wolf, a former aide to Mr Johnson who helped draw up the party's successful election blueprint, said officials could face regular exams in a bid to end an environment "where everyone rises to their position of incompetence".

And she called for an end to the "merry-go-round" of frequent job changes for civil servants, warning: "It kills institutional memory and expertise. It allows officials an escape from accountability."

Mr Cummings, who is said to be drawing up a blueprint for a major overhaul of the civil service, has previously claimed that "almost no one is ever fired" in an organisation in which "failure is normal".

But, in a fresh sign that Number 10's proposals could meet fierce resistance from Whitehall's unions, FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the comments showed "a lack of understanding", while PCS boss Mark Serwotka vowed his organisation would "strenuously" oppose changes to civil service hire-and-fire rules.

"Whilst those advocating reform may like to paint the civil service as antiquated or resistant to change, the reality is somewhat different," Mr Penman told PoliticsHome.

"The UK civil service, recently ranked first in an international analysis of effectiveness, has had to constantly reform and adapt as each government sets out its new priorities. 

"Indeed, the reforms being trailed are more modest than, say, the challenges the civil service faced in 2010. Whilst supporting the first coalition government since the Second World War, it had to manage cuts of 20% in resources, deliver a radical policy agenda and at the same time institute a series of reforms under Francis Maude, transforming how Government worked."

He added: "Tired old rhetoric of ‘civil servants being promoted to a level of incompetence’ is not only insulting, but demonstrates a lack of understanding of the modern realities of the civil service. All Senior Civil Service jobs are externally advertised, meaning anyone promoted has not only competed successfully against their peers, but also with external candidates.

"Indeed many of the issues the civil service faces are of the Government’s own creation. Churn in senior civil service roles is a result of a decade of pay stagnation, with movement between jobs the only route to a pay rise."

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka told PoliticsHome: "The major problem for the civil service in the last decade has been under investment, real terms pay cuts and poor government policy.

"Civil servants work tirelessly to make the machinery of government work for the public.

"However, when you shrink the civil service by over 18% since 2010, you are not going to be able to deliver the same level of service.

"Comments by Dominic Cummings that imply he wants to hire-and-fire at will reveal an anti trade union mentality and will be strenuously resisted by PCS."


Writing in the Telegraph, Ms Wolf had warned civil servants to expect radical changes under Mr Cummings, who has previously said the entire set-up of the organisation is "programmed to go wrong".

Ms Wolf warned: "I cannot decide if Downing Street has deliberately sent people down the wrong path, or if officials are so used to meaningless 'machinery of government' changes that they cannot believe the PM and his chief aide, Dominic Cummings, mean business. As a result, they seem woefully unprepared for what is coming.

"Dominic has been reading and thinking about how to transform the public sector for two decades. He does not think it is a distraction, but a prerequisite to delivering even the simplest promises."

But Mr Penman said that if ministers were "serious about delivering 50 million new GP appointments, new train lines and better buses", it would require a "clearer plan on how the reforms being mooted will actually deliver the transformation being promised".

The row comes amid reports that Number 10 is seeking changes to the civil service's recruitment rules as well as a major restructuring of departments including the breaking up of the Home Office and the creation of a 'super-ministry' to oversee the next phase of Brexit negotiations.

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